Sustainably attracting and engaging talent to promote longevity and sustainability

Authors: Rodney Johnson, Tom Tropp

Sustainability once described initiatives to conserve the environment. That focus has now expanded to policies and practices that also create and preserve a business culture of wellbeing. The goal is staying financially sound and socially vital.

The value of an ethical work culture

Cultural sustainability has become a fundamental driver of business success that encompasses the achievement of both purpose and profitability. This requires organizations to make environmental, social and governance commitments. But there's a strong case for adding ethics.

Ethical principles differ from the compliance practices of governance. Beyond the legal and regulatory baseline, ethical systems are concerned with exercising common values and moral responsibility. Their importance as a cultural norm are on par with environmental and social commitments. And an ethical culture is linked to financial success.

As recognized by the Ethisphere® Institute, the 2019 "World’s Most Ethical Companies" outperformed the Large Cap Index by 14.4% during 2014–2019.1 Organizations that demonstrate strong ethics are more likely to mitigate the risks of misconduct and related legal fees, penalties and distractions from core business objectives. They often have processes for identifying, reporting and addressing issues, and clearly communicate expectations to employees.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on culture

There’s nothing like a pandemic to test the strength of a culture. Stress caused by the rapid shift to remote work, financial concerns related to economic and job uncertainty, and ongoing childcare challenges are some of the key factors that affect employees' mental and emotional wellbeing. However, when ethical principles and actions set the tone for respect, organizations are well-positioned to endure the unpredictable.

If there’s a bright spot in all of this, it may be that the shared experience of dealing with a global health crisis appears to be bringing people together. Findings from a recent survey show that nearly half (49%) of employers have observed increased civility and kindness within their organization—a development that supports business continuity and engagement as employees lean in to a new normal.2

Sustainability in an environment of community unrest

These trying times are uniting people, but also dividing them. Community unrest about social injustices have driven the topics of diversity, equality and inclusion to the forefront of cultural dialog once again. And this movement is empowering employees to candidly discuss workplace equality with colleagues, managers, HR and executive leadership.

For the many employees who continue to work at home, creating a healthy dividing line between personal and work priorities has become more difficult than ever. Employers that acknowledge and respond to these challenges are investing wisely in employee and customer relations, productivity, and attraction and retention.

While ensuring workforce and workplace equality helps contribute to a civil society, broader issues can lead to community unrest that impacts employee safety and business operations. Preparation is the best defense—along with a detailed response plan.

A comprehensive plan accounts for scenarios that run the gamut from mild to severe, and assigns a local leader to facilitate implementation when an event occurs. It's also important to adhere to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) protocols for emergency preparedness, which cover civil disturbances, and to practice the plan with employees.

What’s most important is continued progress in creating a safe environment that allows employees to be who they are – which builds trust and increases engagement.

Actualizing diversity and inclusion expectations

Leadership's stance on diversity and inclusion sets behavioral expectations for these defining cultural values and should authentically align with the organization’s unique character. Supporting communication is important because it helps affirm a commitment to enforcing anti-discrimination policies and adhering to equal employment guidelines. Email, video and teleconferencing can be effective in conveying the mission and values that guide operational decisions.

To establish structure around a cause that can be nebulous and notional, employers are increasingly installing diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) staff at a range of levels. Outlining priorities, plans and milestones in a DEI charter defines goals more fully and directs efforts more precisely. This approach also helps ensure the strategy is deliberate, ongoing and successful, while demonstrating its value both inside and outside of the organization.

When community unrest arises around inequality, it can take an emotional toll on employees. Employee assistance provider (EAP) programs are often helpful in managing stress and supporting mental health by offering resources like coping tips and counseling. For managers, conflict resolution training builds skills that promote appropriate and empathic intervention.

DEI goals may also be achieved by giving the workforce time off for reflecting on personal values or observing national holidays such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Likewise, honoring months dedicated to celebrating women; the LGBTQ community; racial, ethnic and cultural heritages; and other diverse affiliations help create unity.

Inviting feedback from employees on the effectiveness of DEI efforts allows them to contribute individually to a cause they care about, and helps employers assess, adjust and improve their strategy.

Surveys, Q & A opportunities, and one-on-one interactions between employees and HR or leadership are just a few methods for gathering insights. What’s most important is continued progress in creating a safe environment that allows employees to be who they are—which builds trust and increases engagement.

Creating a culture with human values

Historically, work cultures were rigidly structured and enacted. The CEO dictated a set of values and guidelines to middle management, who in turn embedded them within the organization. In most cases, CEOs wholly owned their decisions and middle management or employees who didn’t agree accepted the current reality or left.

That closed-door model is becoming obsolete as interaction and inclusion is expected. With the acknowledgment that people are an organization's greatest asset, a collaborative and iterative process for establishing a sustainable culture has emerged. Good leaders understand that inviting and considering employees’ insights can lead to better decisions.

Drawing a blueprint for cultural values helps keep them sustainable. It should be guided and embraced by top management, and then vetted by middle management who ask questions and raise concerns. Based on this feedback, leadership reevaluates the blueprint. Once an agreement is reached, middle management shares these values with employees and demonstrates them through their actions. The door remains open for the workforce to keep the culture in check by expressing their opinions to management and leadership.

Tracking metrics, monitoring outside feedback and constructively responding are also important. But clear, consistent communication about the organization and its values is key to perpetuating a creative and inclusive culture.

This article appears in the Gallagher Better Works Insights Report Volume 4: Think Differently: Culture, Costs & Community. Contact us to request the full report.

Author Information:


1 Ethisphere. “The Business Case for a Standalone Ethical Culture Survey.” September 2019.
2 Gallagher. “COVID-19 Work in a New Normal Pulse Survey.” July 2020.


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